The WVON Radio Story, Black Ensemble Theater. In honor of WVON's 40th anniversary, Black Ensemble has updated its musical about the radio station that first brought important black voices--musical and political--to Chicago. Written by Jackie Taylor and Jimmy Tillman and directed by Taylor and Ilesha Duncan, the play covers the station's heyday, from 1968 to 1979, when WVON helped launch singers Sam Cooke, Al Green, and Mary Wells and broadcast speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Illuminating that era's harsh business realities, volatile political environment, and dynamic personalities, the company presents not only a fascinating bit of local history but an inspiring human story.
Black Ensemble devotees know the formula: an upbeat, original opening number sung by a jubilant, abundantly talented ensemble; scenes introducing each major character, drawing "ahs" of recognition; historical facts periodically inserted, sometimes a bit awkwardly, into dialogue; and plenty of "let's go catch this show" scenes for showcasing the music of the day. This production feels particularly familiar as it uses the set for Howlin' at the Moon. Still, this is a viable framework for sharing stories and songs. And as always, Black Ensemble captures the flavor of its subject, giving us old-school deejay patter ("Hiya king, hiya queen, the Mad Hatter's back with that swingin' machine") and uncanny soundalike performances from David Simmons as Lou Rawls, Vince Harris as Sam Cooke, and Ngina James as Mary Wells.